Many of us have spent the last 18 months training children to avoid COVID-19 risk within the safety of our homes. Now, children are returning to classes in a school setting that probably won't look like the one they left.

There will be masks, distancing between friends and plexiglass dividers. It will be made even more difficult as COVID rules at home may be different than those at school. While some children will welcome a hug from friends, others will find the same gesture alarming. This is going to be a challenge, so we should plan ways to help our children get comfortable venturing out of their comfort zones and reengaging with others, again.

How to help children feel safe going back to the classroom

Open the Lines of Communication. Children will be anxious about returning to school.

  • Be a role model. Parents, caregivers and teachers need to set the tone that school is safe. Express confidence that schools are taking the necessary steps to minimize risks. If adults are calm and confident, children will feel more secure and protected.
  • Let children know the school is going to be set up differently to keep things healthy. There will be fewer desks and they will be placed further apart, and everyone will be wearing a mask.
  • Ask your child how they feel about going back to their classroom or what questions they may have.
  • Continue to check in with your child periodically to see if worries or challenges have surfaced.

Provide Routine and Structure.  Children perform better when there is a schedule to follow during this time. Caregivers can be good role models here, too. Everyone should get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, wash, and get ready for the day ahead.

Set a time for dinner, homework and a healthy sleep schedule. Family routines such as dinner times, weekly activities and dedicated time together are very important now. Routines take away a sense of uncertainty and help a child feel their days are stable and predictable.

Offer Coping Strategies. This time is confusing as school rules about handwashing and social distancing may differ from your existing household routines. Your child may be anxious when other children are not obeying the rules they typically follow.

  • Assure your child that adults are monitoring the situation. Help your child to focus on what they can control, such as their handwashing and social distancing.
  • Remind your child that it's normal to feel anxious about going back to school, but to remember tools they can use when they are feeling stressed. Those tools might include speaking with a friend or family member, coloring or breathing exercises.
  • It is helpful for parents and caregivers to encourage positive thinking. Ask your child what they are looking forward to doing at school or who they want to see.
  • Remember to give a child time to express their worry and complaints as they navigate this unusual time.

Recognize When You Need Help

We can predict that the anxiety and stress of returning to school will be difficult. Caregivers should be prepared for the possibility of an increased sense of fear and worry in many children.

We are likely to see increased frustration and withdrawal of children as they reintegrate into the school setting. The child’s worries may even interfere with their ability to go back to school.

If your child is showing increased fear, frustration or withdrawal, more frequently or intensely, or for longer periods of time, or if you suspect your child is continuing to struggle after the return to school, do not hesitate to seek help. Reach out to a school counselor or contact Kids' Link at 1-855-543-5465, 24 hours a day.

Children are facing a big challenge by going back to school after a prolonged period of isolation and social distancing. With the help of parents, caregivers, teachers, the community and healthcare providers, our children can emerge from this difficult time feeling safe and ready to reengage with the world.

For more information on helping children be happy and healthy, visit the Growing section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Mary Sullivan, Chief Nursing Officer, Bradley Hospital

Mary Sullivan, PhD, MA, BSN

Dr. Mary Sullivan is chief nursing officer for Bradley Hospital. She is responsible for nursing care delivery across all services in the hospital and is a member of the senior management team.